Logical Causes of the Salem Witch Trials

In 17th century New England, people lived in constant fear of the Devil. As a result of this fear, innocent people were blamed for doing the work of the Devil as witches.

Many people were brought into court, tried and then sometimes executed for not admitting to something they did not do. People who did confess to doing witchcraft however were often spared. They made their names evil but kept themselves alive. Today, in the 21st century, it is presumed that witches do not exist and all the commotion in New England during this time period was a result of speculation. Presumably, idea of witchcraft is in fact fallacious.

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Historians have used evidence from the time period to attribute the cause of these accusations to something more believable and possible. Two theories that have been proposed are that the afflicted accusers in Salem were suffering from post traumatic stress disorder from family deaths in the wars with the native Indians, and that the afflicted suffered from a very rare but feasible disease, ergotism. In the article They Called it Witchcraft by Mary Beth Norton, an alternate theory is proposed explaining a somewhat logical explanation of how the Salem witch trials came to be. Norton first explains how even the most normal life occurrences, like illnesses, household disasters, and financial issues were attributed to supernatural evil spirits all leading back to the Devil’s work by a witch. Norton believes that these accusations were a result of post traumatic stress disorder wars fought between Puritans and American Indians.

In the story of the trials, one of the first people accused of being a witch was the household slave of the town Reverend Parris who was believed to have come from Barbados. Norton suggests that the slave, Tituba, was not actually from the Barbados and that she was in fact and American Indian. Her evidence to support this bold statement was that most slaves in Massachusetts during this time period were from North America, more specifically from Florida and Georgia. Tituba’s accusation sparked the later accusations. Puritans held such a grudge against the Indians as they believed they were god’s chosen people.

This conflicted with the Indians as the Puritans believed that that had the devil on their side and this was why the Indians were beating them in the war. After losing loved ones in the war with Indians, it is natural that people would accuse the Indians for their daily problems. If in fact Tituba was an American Indian and not from the Barbados, Norton proposes a logical argument especially because the other accusations stemmed from that of Tituba. In the article Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem? By Linnda R. Caporael, another possible explanation to the crisis known as the Salem witch trials is proposed.

Caporael proposes that the afflicted or “bewitched” people had the disease called ergotism. Ergotism came from the ergot fungus that grew on rye grains during warm and damp springs and summers. Ergotism was developed from eating bread contaminated with ergot. Ergotism has symptoms of “crawling sensations in the skin, tingling in the fingers, vertigo, tinnitus aurium, headaches, disturbances in sensation, hallucination, painful muscular contractions…” and so forth. With its symptoms, ergotism presents itself as a very possible explanation for the behavior of the afflicted people in Salem. Some of these feelings like crawling in the skin may seem impossible and supernatural like the devil must be responsible for it.

Ergotism is one of the only other things that can explain these sensations. The symptom of hallucination can explain how the afflicted “saw” the people accused with the Devil. Furthermore, Caporael shows even more extensive evidence for the presence of ergotism in Salem. The northern Atlantic coast is in fact a prime growing spot for rye, one of the main hosts for ergot. The puritans’ system of grain storage fits with the time sequence of the crisis. The contaminated grain would have been used around the Thanksgiving period which would support the fact that the young girls started having these supernatural symptoms in December 1961.

Ergotism, although rare, is a very possible and feasible explanation for the Salem crisis. The Salem witch trials are a very important point in history displaying how religious beliefs can cause irrational behavior and can lead to the deaths of innocent people. Mary Beth Norton and Linnda R. Caporael believe that the events of this crisis can be attributed to more logical means. Norton believes that the accusations stem from the post traumatic stress disorder of family losses in war with American Indians.

Caporael believes that the supernatural occurrences can be linked to the disease ergotism. Although both authors make very convincing arguments, Ergotism is the more feasible explanation. Norton’s argument is inferior merely because there is not enough evidence to support it. Though it may be true that people possessed post-traumatic stress disorder there is no spectral evidence from Salem suggesting that this was the origin of the accusations. On the other hand, Caporael’s argument provides a clear explanation of how Ergotism did exist and how its symptoms can be clearly linked to the actions of the afflicted girls.

She also displays the high possibility of Ergotism existing in New England. Ergotism is a very interesting yet convincing possibility of how this crisis came to be in 17th century Salem.